The answer to just about every interesting question seems to be "It depends.".
- Many people like tomatoes, but I don't.
- Though I don't like tomatoes, I eat them.
- If you asked me "Do you like tomatoes?" I would say "No".
- But I would feel disappointed if I couldn't have them on my sandwich, sometimes.
And don't get me started on a good marinara. I LOVE a good red sauce, when it's good.
What Do Leaders Do?
Well, it depends.
People don't act randomly. But, they act with information nobody else has in the moment they act, unless a leader put it there.
Leaders create incentives, observe, and respond with intention.
Good leaders are good leaders for one reason: they have at least a little bit more integrity and courage in moments when others have less.
Bad leaders are bad leaders for a zillion reasons that only make sense in retrospect.
How Do Leaders Do It?
By being both honest and likable.
Leaders say what needs to be said when others need to hear it. Sometimes this means saying something revolutionary. Sometimes it's evolutionary. And sometimes it's the status quo.
Followers do what they want to do. Sometimes this means doing something. Sometimes it means waiting for someone else. Sometimes it means deciding to disagree. Sometimes it means refusing to pay attention. Sometimes it means prioritizing the outcome over the method. Sometimes it means prioritizing the method over the outcome. It all depends.
Leaders stack the deck with incentives, both positive (rewards) and negative (consequences), and they get the balance right.
Too much positive incentive doesn't work for long enough. Too much negative incentive works for longer than it should. Neither one works well enough for long enough to justify the effort, given any other choice.
Leaders teach people what to do and respond with integrity when they do it.
If you said there would be a consequence, provide a consequence. If you said there would be a reward, provide a reward.
Good leaders have integrity. But I said leaders are honest. How do we go from integrity to honesty?
Integrity over time cultivates trust. Enough trust becomes belief. And enough belief over time becomes truth.
Tell people what they already believe and they will believe you're being honest because it validates their own beliefs to believe it. Tell people that they are right and they will believe that you are right.
Leadership is little more than a dynamic mirror.
I also said leaders are likable. I said that leaders are both honest and likable.
What do you believe?
Do you believe good leaders are likable?
Do you like your leaders?
Do you like some more than others?
Among the leaders you don't like, would you follow someone else if you had the chance?
Among the leaders you do like, do you still want more from them?
Leaders from whom you want more have what they need to lead you. They have your attention.
Through your attention a leader can offer incentives to influence how you feel.
Honesty is about what we believe. We believe a person is honest or not whether or not we like what they say.
The thing about beliefs is that they're durable. They're stable by default. Beliefs remain unchanged until there's a reason to change them.
Likability is about what we feel. And feelings are fluid.
Feelings change from moment to moment based on where we focus attention.
In general, focus on good things to feel good. Focus on bad things to feel bad.
Here's the "trick" that enables leadership: what you focus on can be inside you or outside you. But your emotions can only be inside you and only you.
Your emotions travel on a one-way street with three destinations: your subconscious, to your conscious, to the world.
Leading others the wrong way down this street doesn't work well for long. Trying to get people to feel good about themselves by getting them to feel good about you, doesn't work well for long. It only works until something better comes along.
"Better" can be the presence of another leader, or simply the absence of the bad leader. The bad leader's ability to influence fades over time.
On the other hand, good leaders do this ...
Good leaders focus our individual attention on ourselves. They celebrate the good in us and make it visible to others. When others believe we are good, who are we to disagree. And so we believe we are a better version of ourselves in the eyes of others, through the leader.
Good leaders are likable because they give us an opportunity to like ourselves at least a little bit more with them than without. We like them because we like ourselves.
How we feel about ourselves creates the lens through which we see the world. We see the world as we are.
When we feel good about ourselves, we feel good about others as well. But externalized feelings are not feelings, they're beliefs.
We feel inside according to where we focus our attention. When we focus on good, we feel good. When we focus on suffering, we suffer.
Over time we learn to associate how we feel with what we focus on when we feel that way. When the correlation is consistent we confuse the integrity of the correlation with the integrity of what we focus on.
The integrity of the correlation leads us to trust what we focus on. Enough trust becomes belief. And enough belief over time becomes truth.
Momentary feelings inside ourselves become durable beliefs about other people.
People who understand this process have the potential to lead. People who are able to harness it, lead.
Leadership is both powerful enough to seem like an advanced technology, and universal enough to suggest that it must appeal to some very fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.
Many recipes for leadership seem to work for a while. But in my own experience, two traits shared by the best leaders are honesty and likability.
They are both believed and beloved.